As the long, hot days of summer give way to crisp autumn, thoughts turn toward comfort food. It’s time to move from summer’s light, refreshing dishes to more substantial, nourishing meals that will keep you warm through the winter. Here are some of the region’s coziest restaurants, experts at dishing out food that will make you feel all toasty inside—even when it’s cold outside.
Expect to be cosseted at Boulevard Bistro, where owners Bret and Debora Bohlmann and their two daughters tend to their guests with graciousness and concern. The restaurant, housed in a turn-of-the-century bungalow in Old Town Elk Grove, exudes elegance. Tables are draped in crisp white tablecloths, and a dramatic floral arrangement sits atop the fireplace mantle. Out front, you’ll find an old-fashioned porch with a few small tables for alfresco dining. The menu is all about what’s fresh and local. What could be better on a cold, crisp day than the kitchen’s simple but ravishing appetizer of sautéed veal sweetbreads and shiitake mushrooms, glazed with an intensely flavored red wine thyme sauce? Or a thick, juicy hamburger, enveloped in melted smoked mozzarella cheese and perched on a housemade bun? Salads are consistently great and always substantial. Don’t miss the “baby wedge,” a dish I can’t get enough of. It’s a chunk of baby iceberg lettuce, swathed in roasted garlic-chive dressing, chopped Roma tomatoes, tangy sprinkles of blue cheese and bits of pepper-cured bacon. Most of the wines here come from local winegrowing regions: Amador and El Dorado counties, Clarksburg, even Elk Grove.
8941 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove; (916) 685-2220; blvdbistro.com
Every town should have a restaurant like Placerville’s Heyday Cafe. Neighborly and comfortable, it has rustic brick walls, beautiful 150-year-old Douglas fir floors and big windows. A large community table in the center of the tiny restaurant encourages single diners to eat with other customers. There’s even a springy couch for people who really want to relax. The lunch crowd arrives early and fast, ready for Heyday’s yummy selection of salads, pizzas and sandwiches. Popular are the turkey, bacon and avocado wrap and the enormous spicy beef, grilled onion and asiago panini; the restaurant also turns out an excellent Caesar salad. Dinner items are fun and creative—try the seared pork loin chop, served with sweet pineapple curry, or the lasagna made with caramelized onions, vegetables and goat cheese. Heyday has a marvelous wine selection and offers a huge list of wines by the glass. The restaurant fills up quickly, so arrive early (or make a reservation).
325 Main St., Placerville;(530) 626-9700; heydaycafe.com
Aïoli Bodega Española
Located on a vibrant corner in the heart of midtown, Aïoli features lusty Spanish cuisine. Tables are covered with burlap and brown butcher paper, wine glasses are suspended quirkily over a gorgeous copper-topped bar, and the patio is private and intimate—the perfect setting for an anniversary or special first date. Most days you’ll find proprietor Reda Bellarbi scurrying about, delivering meals and chatting with customers. The main focus of the menu is tapas: traditional Spanish small plates meant to be consumed with a glass of sherry or wine. The selection is broad, ranging from judias blancas con atun fresco (white beans tossed in a sherry vinaigrette with nuggets of black olive, diced red onion and chunks of seared tuna) to albondigas todo ajo (meatballs in a bright, garlicky tomato sauce with garbanzo beans and a hard-poached egg). Entrées include paella Valenciana (saffron rice, seafood, chicken and pork sparerib, served in a sizzlingly hot black pan) and cazuela de conejo Riojena (rabbit cooked in Rioja wine). For the full Spanish experience, come in the evening Wednesday through Saturday, when a classical flamenco guitarist performs.
1800 L St., Sacramento; (916) 447-9440
Davis’ Osteria Fasulo is one of the most romantic restaurants in the region. Situated on the edge of a fecund community vegetable garden, it has a stunning outdoor courtyard bordered by trellised grapevines and punctuated by leafy trees strung with tiny lights. Indoors, the charming dining room features scarlet walls hung with striking artwork painted by owner Leonardo Fasulo and old black-and-white photographs of the Fasulo family. The menu is Italian, and you can’t go wrong with pasta, especially the handmade raviolis, with their silky exteriors and flavorful stuffings. It’s clear Leonardo Fasulo loves seafood, which pops up in his rich lasagna di mare (housemade pasta layered with seafood and béchamel sauce) and his hearty cioppino. The pesce del giorno (fish of the day) is also a good bet. On a recent visit, I tried the pan-roasted sea bass served on fabulous white beans. The restaurant also offers a nice selection of Italian wines. Guys, if you’re going to propose, this is the place to do it.
2657 Portage Bay East, Davis; (530) 758-1324; osteriafasulo.com
La Bonne Soupe Cafe
Fans of La Bonne Soupe Cafe share a common attribute: patience. You’ll almost certainly wait in line here, unless you arrive very, very early. Owned and operated by French-born chef Daniel Pont, this is a one-man gourmet show. Pont takes the orders, makes the sandwiches, ladles the soups and works the cash register by himself. But patience is a virtue, and the people waiting in line know they’ll be amply rewarded when they sink their teeth into a sandwich of warm brie and apple or smoked trout and crème fraîche. The selection is fascinating: How often do you see a chèvre and fig sandwich at your local deli? Pont’s soups are legendary; try the cream of broccoli or asparagus and you’ll understand why. The miniscule cafe, tucked into a modest storefront on a gritty section of Eighth Street, feels European. Cheerful French posters hang on Dijon-mustard-colored walls, a hutch in the corner is stuffed with well-worn cookbooks, and the cafe’s few tables are shoved against the periphery, the better to accommodate the uncomplaining, expectant lunch crowd.
920 Eighth St., Sacramento; (916) 492-9506
A Slice of Goodness
Pie, with its compelling connections to childhood, just-plucked fruit and floury grandmothers, may be the most comforting food of all. A Slice of Goodness offers a wide range of flaky, fruit- and cream-filled goodies daily, along with a robust selection of sandwiches and salads. If you’re afraid you won’t have room for pie after your turkey and asparagus or egg salad sandwich, the menu offers a sandwich and pie “combo,” so you can eat only half a sandwich before tucking into a slice of apple-caramel-pecan or peach-apricot pie (which are served warm—you can’t get more comforting than that). Other options range from basic cherry and strawberry banana cream to apple-raisin and hot fudge. The dining room of this bustling, family-owned restaurant looks like someone’s dated, well-worn living room, with flowery wallpaper, a milk pitcher collection and lots of endearing family photographs tacked up on the wall.
924 Douglas Blvd., Roseville; (916) 781-3727
Tucos Wine Market & Cafe
Nothing could be cozier than a meal at Tucos in Davis. Located on a quiet street near the train station, teeny Tucos offers a globally exciting menu, featuring thoughtfully sourced artisanal products and exquisitely ripe local produce. Wine is a big deal here, with an eclectic selection and daily wine “flights.” One recent afternoon, the “Sparkling Discovery” flight ($15) took me from Italy to France, South Africa and South Australia on a bubbly exploration. The menu changes frequently; be prepared for intriguing, earthy dishes that you won’t see anywhere else in the region, such as pasture-raised lamb meatballs with feisty Cuban mojo sauce. Free-range-chicken tacos share menu space with a complex feijoada, a Brazilian stew of beef, pork, black beans, rice and braised kale. The restaurant’s Miyagi, Kumamoto and Sweetwater Oysters make a perfect starter, and you can follow them with a beautiful roasted-beet salad. One entire page of the menu is devoted to cheeses. Try a soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese from Colorado or a hard sheep’s milk cheese from Holland, which come with dried fruit, marcona almonds, olive oil and bread.
130 G St., Davis; (530) 757-6600
In Great Britain, the local pub serves as a meeting place for friends and a home away from home for anyone seeking connection and community. Bonn Lair in East Sacramento is just such a place. Walk through this pub’s door and you’re transported to another world whose Britishness will make your head reel. Long, narrow and dimly lit, it looks as though it’s been in business for 100 years, exuding solidity and a comfortably shabby feeling. Walls are lined with old, dark wood and covered with pubbish bric-a-brac: old soccer jerseys, trophies and grainy photos of British royals. A colorful chalkboard lists the libations, from Old Speckled Hen ale to Guinness Stout, and there’s a room in back for playing darts. The space is filled with wooden booths, threadbare couches and chairs, and a tiny bar that seats only four or five. The food is plain and sturdy, perfect for soaking up beer. Nothing fancy here, just dishes like greasy yet tasty bangers (sausages), piled on a stiff mound of mashed potatoes doused with gravy. There’s also a hot clutch of fish and chips, gargantuan Cornish pasties and a surprisingly flavorful shepherd’s pie.
3651 J St., Sacramento; (916) 455-7155
Gnawing hunger knows no better friend than a fat, luscious hamburger. Add to that a bouncy seat at a well-scuffed counter, a brisk, no-nonsense waitress and a thick strawberry shake guaranteed to catapult you back to childhood, and you’ve got a meal to nurture body and spirit. Jim-Denny’s, Sacramento’s landmark shrine to the big, satisfying burger, has been feeding the region’s ravenous since 1934. This quirky 12th Street cafe is as cozy as you’ll find anywhere—it has 10 swiveling counter seats, fresh flowers on its elbow-worn counter and a hot grill sizzling in the back corner, cooking up the cafe’s famous “megaburgers.” If you’re counting calories, avert your eyes as the burger cook shellacks the grill with an oil-saturated paintbrush. Yep, these babies are greasy, and that’s one reason they taste so good. There’s a small selection of sandwiches for nonburger eaters, and if you come in the morning, you can enjoy Jim-Denny’s hefty biscuits and gravy or breakfast burrito. As you wait for your meal, check out the old newspaper articles, menus and photographs on the walls, chronicling Jim-Denny’s colorful history. It’s cheering to know you are joining the ranks of generations of happy hamburger eaters.
816 12th St., Sacramento; (916) 443-9655; leaveyourteethathome.com
It’s easy to walk right by this unassuming restaurant, tucked between an auto body shop and a nail salon on busy J Street. It’s one of the smallest restaurants in midtown, with only five small round tables and six counter seats. Husband-and-wife team Eva and Louie Chruma run the show—Eva in front, Louie sweating it out in the micro-kitchen. Marika’s specialty is Hungarian cuisine, the food you run for when it’s crackling cold outside or someone’s just broken your heart. Sturdy and fragrant, the Hungarian goulash is my favorite, with moist chunks of pork in a gentle paprika sauce ladled over housemade spaetzle (tiny egg dumplings). The breast of turkey “aux champignons” is another creamy soul-soother, dotted with soft mushroom slices. The most interesting dish (available only in the evening) is the pork “roll-ups,” pork fillets stuffed with egg, pickle, bacon, sausage and onions and smothered in Hungarian brown gravy.
2011 J St., Sacramento; (916) 442-0405
Dad’s Sandwich Shop
A funky, no-frills sandwich joint located in a diminutive, robin’s-egg-blue cottage, Dad’s in downtown has built quite a reputation for itself. Thronged at lunch, this friendly, humid little box of a deli features an extensive hand-written menu that dominates one wall, and a chest-high counter from which you order. Music blares from the sandwich-making area, and the casually dressed cooks banter back and forth as they work on their masterpieces. Quiznos this ain’t; expect to cool your heels a long time for your sandwich. When it does arrive, however, it’s cunningly wrapped in white paper and is worth the wait. Many sandwiches have amusing names like the Angry Road Man (turkey and bacon, Swiss cheese and roasted red onions) and the Bad Breath Special (roast beef, garlic spread, horseradish sauce and blue cheese). There’s also a delectable chicken salad sandwich, dotted with walnuts and served on organic wheat bread. It can get crowded inside—better to grab a table on the sidewalk, where you can relax, admire the shop’s tattoo-style flaming heart sign and watch the world go by.
1310 S St., Sacramento; (916) 448-3237
Nestled within a luxuriant bower of trees, Slocum House is the gastronomic grande dame of old Fair Oaks. Constructed in 1925 as a home for the Slocum family, it’s now an enchanting venue for a special occasion. Several small dining rooms look out onto the extravagant foliage surrounding the restaurant, and the patio has an added perk—that is, if you like chickens, which dart from table to table, preening and clucking. Sunday brunch, with its relaxed atmosphere, is a nice time to visit. You’ll receive a complimentary glass of Champagne or a mimosa, and in addition to the regular menu, there’s a nicely laid out fruit and pastry buffet. At dinner, your entrée comes with soup or salad. (Remember when that was de rigueur?) The menu is seasonal and interesting: You might find chicken breast stuffed with smoked bacon and leeks; filet mignon carpaccio; or pan-seared wild Alaskan halibut with curry-citrus vinaigrette. The restaurant also offers a good selection of wines by the glass and half-bottle. And if you’ve got an adventurous sweet tooth, try the pastel de tres leches cake, a traditional Mexican dessert, served with dulce de leche caramel sauce.
7992 California Ave., Fair Oaks; (916) 961-7211; slocum-house.com
Lake Forest Cafe
Lake Forest Cafe in Folsom is a welcoming touchstone of comfort in a frenetically paced world. The cafe is situated in a cute little slate-blue house that once served as a gold panners’ bunkhouse. Tables are crammed into every available space, and a young waitstaff navigates cheerily through the crowded dining rooms. The menu is large—larger than you would expect for such a small establishment. It’s also refreshingly diverse and interesting, featuring such curious items as a banana, pineapple and raisin fruit omelet and a kosher beef salami egg scramble. The blintzes, a house specialty, look like three little ladies’ purses, stuffed with a dreamy, cheesy filling and blobbed with sweetened sour cream and strawberry preserves. The potato latkes also are fabulous—crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, and served with sautéed apples and sour cream. Other worthy choices range from an enormous cinnamon roll to the sumptuous “lox, eggs ’n onions,” a guaranteed belly-filler. There’s also a wonderful array of sandwiches and salads (but come for the breakfast).
13409 Folsom Blvd., Folsom; (916) 985-6780; lakeforestcafe.co
Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar
Long admired for its stellar wine program, Enotria also offers a creative, beautifully executed menu. The main dining room, with its low, brown-gold ceilings and pristine white tablecloths, has an uptown, supper-clublike ambiance you don’t expect to find on Del Paso Boulevard. The menu, compact and playful, offers many surprises. Thai coconut fish sticks, made from fresh mahi-mahi and served with an exotic aioli of galangal root and candied ginger, is an innovative twist on an old childhood staple. Tasty citrus shrimp ceviche, served in a martini glass, shines with the lively flavors of cilantro and fresh squeezed lemon. The kitchen certainly has a knack with fowl: Try the succulent roasted rock hen, accompanied by sautéed organic spinach and a salad of lentils and smoked bacon. Dig into the mushroom and goat cheese strudel or the irresistible Caprese salad, which showcases ripe heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and baby artichokes. But save room for dessert—you’ll want to indulge in Enotria’s luscious banana-vanilla crème brûlée.
1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 922-6792; enotria.com